Why Business Will Escape the Net

It’s been about 10 years since I picked up a guitar to make a concerted effort to learn how to make music.

About seven years ago I started getting aches about my right elbow. Nothing severe, but enough of a niggle to stop me playing. A glass half full guy, I’m convinced at least the neighbours breathed a sigh of relief.

This year marks 30 since I got my first computer, a Sinclair ZX Spectrum. I don’t remember the model, only that I had Pssst and Cookie and as 8-bit games go, they have stood the test of time.

I’m not entirely convinced physiologically I’m all the better for those decades programming and playing. But as with any vocational or professional commitment spanning a serious range of time, it has served me well cerebrally.

And I’m pretty sure that tenure has earned me the right to be pragmatic about where we’re headed if our reliance on technology grows.

Another way

I have this kernel of an idea to play out in this article.

I really want you to hang around and let me know if you think it has legs because this could well be my third book in the making, and as such, while not quite the time commitment of computing in my life, it would still be one heck of an undertaking.

You might have noticed that everyone*, everywhere, is striving to get their businesses online. Some have transferred significant efforts from traditional to digital marketing; others have taken the plunge and created virtual operations from scratch.

There’s no doubt our internet is the modern-day gold rush. But like those days in the desert, I’m hypothesising the www isn’t a permanent panacea.

I’m not alone: I’ve seen a change. We’ve heard the lustre of Facebook is dulling, with social media speculators rightly (wrongly?) commanding their tribes to ridicule such claims as they build up the egos and mystique of those very leaders.

Equally we know our digital ways have given us much, but taken away at least an equal amount, in depriving us of real human interaction.

A while ago I wrote a fascinating (to me) article for a local newspaper positing a renaissance for the high street if and when retailers adopt a concierge or showroom model as an extension of their ecommerce activities.

It’s important to have feet in both camps, the traditional and the digital. In the most facile sense, one lets you face your customer, while the other lets you find them.

But I’m pretty sure the novelty factor that has given the web such an embarrassment of riches, is finally starting to fade.

While once, not so long ago, we embraced the multitude of advantages poised by globalisation and the shrinking of distance through social networking, we now see the less polished side.

We’ve seen extracts from truly miserable diaries of far-away sweat shop slaves, suffering an uncomfortable reality of mediaeval working practices. For some, in Bangladesh, the ultimate price has been paid for a pittance.

Outsourcing, a necessary evil in facilitating progress, they say, has helped us achieve nothing but regression in a domestic sense as short-term gain devolves into long-term pain.

We know things have changed, perhaps forever, but in everything we do lessons can and should be learned. We need to go back, to the future.

If the blue touchpaper of localisation has been lit, the accelerant is us. Because in among all this confusion and navel-gazing, it’s the human touch that we all crave. Every one of us. Even the digital players who have known no other game.

The internet has given us so much, but with the other hand, it has deprived.

And that’s where this strange metaphor is triangulated. There’s me, with my weakened elbow, the dusty guitar and a wider regression of both loss and opportunity.

The ultimate paradigm shift

What happens when you take everything we learned from the pixel, and put them into place?

From click, to brick. Wend from the web, score on the street. It couldn’t work, not today, not now. Or could it?

Obviously the right way is to leave your physical premises and do battle against untold global competitors. Build the snappiest website, collect dozens of testimonials (that for all your customer knows, could have equal veracity as a story from The Onion), and relentlessly spam prospects with regurgitated ideas-laden eshots.

Back to the future?

Surely the last place in the world for a traditional transition would be Palo Alto, home to more fully paid-up digital denizens per head of population than anywhere else in the world?

LegalForce, formerly branded as Trademarkia, recently opened in Silicon Valley a tablet store, book store, legal office, event venue and lounge, all rolled into one. from inc.com: Why This Successful Website Is Going Brick and Mortar.

It’s a store. Meh. But LegalForce as Trademarkia generated 2 million web visitors a month. And now *it’s doing its own impression of hipster bringing us something to touch that isn’t made of glass. Chat-torneys on tap, publishing for authors crafting simple matter from complex topics, and a store – because, gasp, it might just be a good way of doing business, after all.

This ain’t the first time anyone has reframed in a world where typically the web is the only way.

Chicago-headquartered State Farm set up an actual cafe offering free financial workshops, as documented in my book Sharing Superheroes.

It’s personal

I used to think having a physical presence was the sole domain of spas and soul food, providers of experiences you simply couldn’t replicate on the web.

Further down the line, conspiring in a more sophisticated sense, I ruminated more generically in that so long as you had an experience we needed – something making us smarter, smilier, stress-free or speedier – we’d always give your front door a push.

But now I’m wondering whether we’re heading somewhere much more exciting. Much more real. That in fact, Amazon isn’t going to make it.

You’ll never meet the guy who boxes your books. Amazon will never call to ask about the welfare of your scholarly son.

We’ll all miss the human touch one day. I already do. That’s why I’ve been thinking about how I can share the fruits of those years appreciating technology in a physical environment. A chain of helpful cafes called Tea, Toast and Tech, perhaps, melding laid-back lounging with wired workshops.

In many ways that’s simply an extension of an idea long simmering on my brain hob of an always-on, localised TED conference, set in a modest bistro. I’m hearing uCafe, somewhere anyone can take to the stage and stream their expertise for those close to hand and globally spread. Unemployed? uCafe will help you find work. uCafe: Leaf smart.

Let’s get physical

This might all sound like a bashing for the net. Far from it. While I believe spontaneity of creativity is very much a face-to-face thing, the internet bonds us, develops those relationships that can be strengthened across a table, in a bar.

Where this goes, noone knows. But I do sense we’re ready for a change.

Enjoyed this lesson for content strategy success? Get in touch on Twitter @davethackeray and let me know your thoughts.

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